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Disrupting Disruption: Metamorphosis of Perception through Noise

In contemporary art, noise has been associated with disruption, dissonance, and a departure from established norms. However, this article seeks to consider how the nature of noise extends beyond its conventional characterization, problematizing how we conceive of its presence in addition to its teleological tendencies in artistic practice. In doing so, we ponder the speculative impact of noise on our perception and its potential to reshape our understanding of artistic works and what we privilege as “signal.” By examining the concepts of glitch, remix, and serendipity, we explore how noise influences our reception with art and natural phenomena as well as the significance of reevaluating our perception and labeling of noise.


The Glitch Catalyst

Glitch, often associated with technical malfunctions and disruptions, can be perceived as noise within systems. Rosa Menkman’s The Glitch Moment(um) strongly characterizes glitch as a noise artifact that can be used to disrupt dominant flows and bring about critical intervention to challenge normative meanings. However, in this description, we see that this inextricably links glitch (and noise) to a teleology whereby it serves the purpose of resisting hegemonies. In this article, we take a step back to reconsider this tendency. Furthermore, from a technological perspective, it is important to recognize that glitches can also be functional responses in systems. Through experimentation, it is known that glitches are deterministic (even if their process or result is somehow unexpected or unpredictable), so by rigorously engaging in glitch processes, systematics could be analyzed to comprehend the range of outcomes, similar to studying phenomena in scientific experiments. By emphasizing the freedom of exploration and expression, glitch (noise) can bring opportunities for creativity, generating unexpected outcomes and prompting new perspectives. Allowing glitch into the artistic process, we challenge the notion of noise as means to resistance (being a marginalized viewpoint that addresses some hegemony), and rather, encourage its potential as a catalyst for innovation (a mode of agency that contributes to novelty).


Serendipity and the Noise-Signal Duality

The discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) highlights a profound issue in the perception of noise. The researchers initially thought their instrument was catching spurious signal, but after much troubleshooting, the CMB was later recognized as a signal of incredible significance, providing insights into the origin and structure of the universe. This notable example of serendipity demonstrates how our perception of noise is relative to our knowledge and prevailing hegemonic thinking. Thus, it is necessary to reflect on the reclassification of the CMB as a “signal” precisely because it challenges how we privilege an information encounter as a kind of discovery or irrelevance. We must recognize that our partial knowledge (or rather, our ignorance) behooves us to reevaluate assumptions about noise and its potential significance. Rather than seeing this issue as a duality or dichotomy, we should consider broadening our interpretation of such encounters, and have deeper reflection on what it means to categorize or assign polarizing labels.


Remixing through Noise

Remixing involves the modification of available material by adding, subtracting, or reconfiguring elements to produce a new work. By considering noise and introducing it into existing structures, we enable chance elements and modified variations to emerge. While noise may be perceived as an unwanted intrusion, its inclusion can breathe life into stagnant forms, and can alter how we receive a work of art. For instance, if we inject a small amount of noise into an image, the alteration might be imperceivable, yet by virtue of modifying an existing structure, it could be argued the result constitutes a remix. On the other hand, by heavily modifying the source image with noise, it may become unrecognizable, which would lead to a tendency to see the result as a distortion. By pushing our interpretation of a work, we welcome noise as an essential element of remix culture, and thereby open ourselves to novel interpretations and reinterpretations, amplifying the diverse voices, processes, and perspectives that contribute to the artistic landscape.

Figure 1: Remixing images with noise. The original image is on the left and the proceeding images increase with noise. The top row injects gaussian noise, the middle row salt-and-pepper noise, and the bottom HSV noise.


Beyond Normative Resistance

Noise, often associated with dissonance and resistance to normative values, has become a staple in artistic practices. By continuing to uphold this tendency, the culture of art eventually results in a hegemony and expectation to produce works in this mode. It is a danger that the artistic process and its dialogue become constrained, stagnated and compromised by dominating attitudes. It is crucial to transcend the teleology of the art world’s tendency to “resist” by exploring the broader implications of noise. Noise should not be confined to a mere opposition of perceived norms nor to our own expectations or aims; instead, it should be acknowledged as a freeing mode of agency that enables questioning, challenging, and subverting our own inner narratives. By redefining our understanding of noise, we can harness its potential to foster inclusivity, encourage discussion, and amplify marginalized voices (especially within ourselves).


Reflection

The impact of noise on our perception of art and nature cannot be understated. By considering glitch, remix, and serendipity, we can begin to see that noise has the potential to transform our understanding and critically challenge our inner dialogue. By reevaluating noise beyond its association with resistance, we recognize its capacity to foster exploration, innovation, and inclusivity. Embracing noise as an integral part of artistic expression enables us to engage with works in ways that transcend traditional boundaries, creating space for new discoveries and evolving perceptions.


Figure 2: Conceptual diagramming of theoretical layers and empirical examples on how the perception noise influences reception of some work or encounter of a phenomenon.


Notes

The cover image is an experimental WEBP databend of the Plank rendering of the CMB.


Images in Fig. 1 are from the Kodak Lossless True Color Image Suite, released for for unrestricted usage.


Rosa Menkman. The Glitch Moment(um). Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011.

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